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The Mental Toll of Mental Toughness; A Story

If you or someone you know is struggling with depression, please seek help immediately, you do not have to struggle alone. 

He sat there staring at the black silhouette of a handgun, lying on the cream-colored sheets. It was motionless, and so was he. Well, he was motionless at first glance, but upon closer inspection you could see his chest rise and fall, you could see his eyes flutter occasionally when pulled from their blank stare, and you could see the occasional repositioning of a foot or a hand as uncomfortableness would force the movement. However, what you could not see was all the motion inside his head. In his mind there was endless shifting begging for clarification and understanding.

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As you survey him, you would not see any damage, hear any pain or discomfort, or feel the angst that was there. There were no visible wounds, no lacerations, no punctures, no physical defects. What you might notice is moisture, you would have to look to his blue eyes, past the blank stare and towards the edges where the color meets the white, there in that space was a tinge of glistening moisture, moisture that spoke to something that could not be seen. Tears are a funny thing, they can be felt, but their voice is mixed and is not clear. Tears can be mistaken for joy, for pain, they can indicate being overwhelmed. They are clear and loud in their delivery, but lack in the clarity that allows the observer to know why they are there. Today, in his eyes these were not tears of joy. They were tears of pain and they were tears of devastation.

As you continue to study the scene, your eyes would inevitably go back to the handgun sitting on the edge of the bed. The black Glock 42, its name indicated by the markings visible as you glance down, appeared to have a magazine inserted into it. Within the magazine, one could assume were 6 rounds nestled together, neatly in a row, and an additional round chambered into the sleek handgun. One may be concerned as they looked at this firearm, as to its purpose, its role in the scene. Yet, it has no intent within itself, no action that it can take from its motionless state unless enacted upon by an outside force.

Near the gun, sits a badge, its gold reflecting the light in the room creating a star-like pattern on the nearby wall. Its star-shaped silhouette seems to indicate that it belongs to a Sheriff or a Deputy. The badge holds no authority, no strength on its own, but it can represent both strength and authority. The badge means nothing where it lies, but it can mean everything where it is wielded. Like the firearm that it lies next to, it’s only role is to be obedient, to be a tool, and to fill a role when called upon.

The male reaches down and picks up the badge. He holds it and feels it. He feels the weight, both real and perceived. Yet, its weight can be almost too much to bear. Who would have known that such small piece of metal, a piece of silver, a piece of gold, a piece of tin, could have such a profound heaviness. The badge represents so much, stands for so much and remembers too much. A tears salty moisture finds its way from the man’s red cheeks to the edge of his gold badge, sitting on the edge for only a moment, before cascading to the floor with the assistance of gravity.

Gravity. Weight. Heaviness. Those were the words that describe this scene, but why?

The items in this scene cannot remember, but he can. They cannot recall the traffic scene. They do not recall two a.m., when a mother of three young children stopping at the store on her way to the house to pick up last-minute Easter gifts for the kids. Her mind certainly focused on their smiling faces and a blessed day of friends and family, church and Easter egg hunts. Her mind was certainly with her family as she pulled out of the store’s parking lot directly into the path of an intoxicated driver who never even attempted to hit the brakes. The lights, the sounds, the screams, the smell of hot brakes and burnt rubber. The smell of blood and the struggle to try to sustain life in the face of certain death. No! The badge, the gun, they did not remember, but he does. He remembers every moment and always will.

“No! The badge, the gun, they did not remember, but he does. He remembers every moment and always will.”

His mind goes back to the infant lying lifeless in the child’s parents bed. The initial indication that someone rolled on him and smothered him during the night. He remembers vividly the young baby motionless, appearing like a baby doll on the sheets. The badge and gun were there as he tried to console the parents, assure them that even though they lost their entire world; that somehow, and in someway it would be ok.

The roller coaster of his mind continued, up and down, around and around, memory after memory. Dead body after dead body, young and old, drug related and health related, expected and gone too soon; they all just mix together and run through his mind. He thinks of the abused victims, children beat by loved ones, children sexually assaulted by the very ones who were supposed to protect them, children with no one left to care for them and children whose voices never even had a chance to be heard. Victims who have lost almost everything and victim’s who have lost everything to include life itself. Their voices echo in his mind, they are a constant drum beat, driving steadily to a crescendo of hurt and pain. That is where he is today, the drum beat has grown, the orchestra has assembled and the angst and pain seemingly has no outlet as the sound becomes deafening.

He sits the badge down and reaches over to the nightstand and grabs a rocks glass. The gold from his badge refracting through the jagged design, etched in the glass above the brown liquid. The brown liquid moves slowly around the cubed ice as the glass is gently circled in his hands. The alcohol moving around the ice as water moves around rocks in a gentle stream. Alcohol. The one thing that he hopes will help. All he wants is for the drumbeat to lesson and the memories to fade. However, even though alcohol may slow down the memories, they don’t evaporate. Alcohol can make the voices quieter, but they do not leave. Where once was screams there is now a roaring whisper. Yet, much like the overwhelming song of the katydids on a summer night after a brief rain, the memories of suffering flood his soul and continue to echo in the deep caverns of his mind. He sips the alcohol, still wishing for relief and the glass is sat back on the table.

It is premature to assume that it is only the sounds of the past that haunt him tonight. It is also his own questions, the interrogative statements that pry at his very heart. Did he do enough? Was he fast enough, smart enough, strong enough? Was he in the right place? Did he make the right decision? Is he wrong to think this way? Pointed questions, questions that beg an answer where no good answer exists. On and on they go, until the worst of the questions rises to the top, the abhorrent, What if…? This question has no answer. The very asking of it requires an assumption thus guaranteeing it cannot be determined. Where there is no control, there is no ability to question variables. You cannot know what will actually happen today or tomorrow, because you have no control over it. Since you have no control over it, you also cannot say what would happen if anything about it were different, it is by its very definition, an unknown.

The memories of the uncontrollable continue to race through his mind mixing with the questions of the unanswerable, becoming simply overwhelming. He needs answers but cannot have them, he needs peace and that too remains elusive.

He reaches down to the silhouetted gun and picks it up. His palms sweat and moisture can be seen on the shaft of the firearm as he moves it about in his hand. He notices the weight, much like the badge, it is heavier than its actual weight. The gun holds a power as well, one of life and of death. It is the end of the decision-making process, the final step on a decision tree. Once the trigger has been pressed back to release the firing pin, it cannot be brought back. The hammer, the pin, the strike, the primer, the powder, the projectile; this chain of events cannot be stopped once the decision has been made. If that decision is to take a life or to save a life, once in motion, the decision has been made and only God can intervene.

Tonight though, instead of the trigger, he hits the magazine release on the black polymer body of the handgun with his right thumb and catches the magazine with his left. He drops it on the blanket beside him and grabs the cool metal slide of the weapon and pulls it straight back, watching a round eject unto the floor in front of him. Quickly he takes the gun and throws it a short distance, allowing it to land on the floor, and slide to its resting place along the wall. He then reaches back to the table and grabs his glass of whiskey. The tears are streaming quicker now and each breath he takes is faster and deeper. His only thought, “I can’t do this, I have always been so tough.” However, right now, all he can sense, all he can feel is weakness, the perception that he us unable to control even himself.

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He has been tough, he had to be. When he was the first to arrive to the auto accident and watched the life of the young mother slip away he had to be “tough.” He could not cry, he had to act. He had to seem strong, impenetrable, as he told a mother she would never see her daughter again and knew that she would have to relay to her grandchildren that their mother was gone forever. He had to be tough when faced with physical challenges, he had to be tough when faced with people who hated the badge simply because of what it represents and not who is. He had to be tough when faced with gunfire, tough when rescuing others from fire and water.

Tough had become a defining part of the persona he created. A persona that was beginning to feel more like an alter-ego. Inside he felt so weak, but he knew in his mind he had to be strong for those around him. He had to not only be strong at work, but strong at home. Strong for a family that didn’t understand what compelled him to this line of work, strong for a wife who never wanted him to leave and strong for a son who just wanted dad to be home. However, all this strength felt like a charade because it is the curse of mental toughness.

“He certainly had his moments of true strength, strength of both body and mind, but the mental toll of mental toughness is rarely seen until it reaches its breaking point.”

He certainly had his moments of true strength, strength of both body and mind, but the mental toll of mental toughness is rarely seen until it reaches its breaking point. Mental toughness is a dam filled to the point of spilling over, a river that cannot maintain its banks, a drink that has escaped its glass and escaped across the wooden bar top. The damage is the only measure by which it can be observed and much like the breaking dam, when the damage finally reveals itself, it is so significant he may never recover. This is the reality of mental toughness, is that it is a strength given not received. It is a strength that has a limit if not rejuvenated. When the last drop of strength is given with no refueling, the only result is emptiness or loss, which is often labeled weakness. Strength is not salvaged by ignoring its loss. The choice to ignore the inevitable is why relief is sought in the first place, whether it be in a handgun, a bottle of alcohol, reclusive behavior, sexual promiscuity or illicit drugs, relief is the only goal.

Mental toughness is a misnomer. It is true that a strength of mind has been developed, but in its development a weakness is created, a weakness that makes the strong feel as though they are losing control. Feeling that they are losing the very part of themselves that allowed them to do the work they were called to do originally. It is this feeling, this lack of control, that begins the spiral which becomes the unconquerable challenge. If allowed to continue, it will spiral downward, until the need for relief becomes so strong, so overwhelming, that it is sought after by any means.

Today the story ends differently. After setting the glass of whisky back on the small wooden table, he reached for his phone. At first he didn’t know why, but something compelled him, something told his that today he could make it. He called a friend, a friend from work, someone who has fought the same demons, someone who though they may not have won the war, has won battles. It is better in a war to reach out to someone who has the scars of war than to someone who has no scars for they have never fought. The conversation was short, it wasn’t even descriptive as what was going on, but the friendly and knowing voice over shadowed the haunting voices for at least long enough to set the bottle to the side and to think about his wife and son at the house, to think about life, rather than the echos of death.

“It is better in a war to reach out to someone who has the scars of war than to someone who has no scars for they have never fought.”

After hanging up, he sat his phone down. He reached down and picked up the star and sat it next to the bed on the nightstand, he then reached down and grabbed the magazine and the Glock handgun. As he had a thousand time before, he loaded the weapon and sat it next to badge to keep him safe. Picking up his phone he called his wife assuring her he would be home in the morning. He looked over at the bottle of whisky, picked it up and poured it down the sink. As the last drops circled the drain he smiled and thought that tonight he still had the strength to go on, tomorrow will be a new fight, but that is tomorrow. Tonight he went to sleep.

This post first appeared at On The Blue Line, February 2019.